February 26, 2021

Most quotations on the internet attributed to famous people are fake, as Oscar Wilde memorably said. But there is a particularly annoying one that does the rounds, usually ascribed to Socrates and in reality a mangled version of a dialogue involving him in Plato’s Republic:

“The children now love luxury,” it says: “They have bad manners, contempt for authority. They show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room.”

Normally this passage is used to score a point off conservatives who express reservations about some new cultural trend. Ha, they say, you people are always moaning about decline, but old curmudgeons have been doing so since the dawn of Western civilisation. Chill out, grandpa.

We might call this the Elvis Hips Fallacy, after the way in which cultural commentators tend to dismiss those who object to, say, hypersexualised music videos marketed at children and adolescents, because old squares grumbled about Elvis’s dancing corrupting youth in the 1950s.

Everyone sniggers at the TV company bosses who supposedly ordered that Elvis not be filmed from the waist down, or the retired colonels who complained to the Daily Telegraph about hysterical teenage girls and Beatlemania. Sir Lawrence Byrne, the judge who heard the Lady Chatterley trial and made that famous remark about wives and servants, will forever be remembered as an archetype of stuffy repression.

Yet while the more absurd and archaic concerns of the time have become part of popular folklore, most of the warnings made by less excitable social conservatives have proved largely accurate. It is hard to deny that the emergence of mass youth culture, as represented in its early phase by Elvis and The Beatles, and sexually explicit books such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover, did a great deal to transform sexual attitudes and habits. Looking at our high rates of, say, abortion or divorce, you don’t have to agree with anti-abortion or family campaigners to accept that their predictions were more accurate than those of well-meaning reformers.

Drawing attention to these kind of matters is sometimes referred to dismissively as “moral panic”, a phrase popularised by the sociologist Stanley Cohen to describe a period of excessive mass concern over some supposed social problem. Obviously the term has its uses, and there are undoubtedly times when collective preoccupation with a particular problem reaches a wildly disproportionate level. This was certainly true of the high-profile media campaigns focused on “satanic ritual child abuse”, or the supposedly deleterious effects of children playing Dungeons & Dragons.

More recently, it appears that a great deal of British activism, rhetoric and commentary in support of the Black Lives Matter movement fits the definition of a moral panic. There has been apocalyptic coverage in the news and on social media, and endless self-interested corporate auto-flagellation, suggesting that Britain is a seething hotbed of white supremacism. The data, meanwhile, suggests that Britons are increasingly relaxed about immigration and intermarriage, and shows that British police barely ever kill anyone, never mind targeting black people specifically. Even in the US, polling reveals that large numbers of respondents wildly overestimate the prevalence of fatal police violence against unarmed black civilians.

All the same, moral panic is such an easily understood and politically useful concept that it inevitably suffers from concept creep — to the point where it functions as a thought-terminating cliché whenever anyone expresses any reservation. Inevitably, it is also used pejoratively to delegitimise conservative arguments, acting as a kind of mental roadblock.

Status positioning is in play too. For people whose self-image is based on their membership of the sophisticated, educated classes, it no doubt feels a bit below the salt to care about any issue that might exercise the indignation of the Daily Mail. We saw this last year with the Netflix film Cuties, which featured 11 and 12-year-old children dancing like strippers and having graphic conversations about sex. One British film critic gave it a glowing review, calling it a “provocative powder-keg” which “pissed off all the right people”, a take that was defended on Twitter by other members of the film critics’ guild.

In the US, The New Yorker also praised the film, framing their opinion as defiance of what they suggested was a cynical and puritanical assault by sinister reactionary forces. They claimed that it was a “remarkable first feature” and intimated that those who criticised the film were “scandal-mongers” linked to the “far-right”. Many critics seemed willing to embrace and praise something which was at best very dubious, rather than risk their reputation for sophistication, or allow that their cultural enemies might have even a smidgen of a point.

This curious episode came to mind again recently, after it emerged that a musician who sings about Satanism and takes his stage name from a multiple murderer might be a bad person. Numerous women have made serious allegations against Marilyn Manson (real name Brian Warner), including various forms of sexual assault and coercion. In his heyday in the nineties and early noughties, Manson was the focus of considerable criticism over the aggressively dark and nihilistic tone of his performances and his confrontational taboo-breaking persona. He was not the first, nor the last, pop culture figure to be the subject of such objections, and nor was he alone in being defended by cultural gatekeepers who were totally uninterested in moral concerns being expressed by the wrong sort of person.

The accusation of fomenting a moral panic is frequently levelled against conservatives who make a stand against taboo-breaking. Mary Whitehouse, the widely derided but courageous and in many ways prophetic morality campaigner, was constantly accused of doing so because of her objections to swearing, violence and sex on TV.

Whitehouse’s long battle with the BBC was also indicative of the class dynamics at work. She was a suburban housewife from the self-consciously upright provincial middle class — the same background as that other hate-figure of the progressive intelligentsia, Mrs Thatcher. Whitehouse’s bete noire Hugh Greene, liberalising Director General of the BBC from 1960 to 1969, was an archetypal liberal elite figure, born into a well-off upper-middle-class family and educated at private school and Oxford (his brother was the novelist Graham). Mrs Whitehouse knew a simple truth, which Greene either didn’t know or didn’t care about, namely that the prosperous, well-educated and well-connected are insulated from the damaging consequences of radical social experimentation in a way that others are not.

For example, being left to raise three children by an unreliable partner is bad for any woman, but an intelligent, well-educated woman with strong support networks is much better placed to make the best of such a situation than a woman with few qualifications and little social capital. Similarly, middle-class students who develop serious drug problems do not always escape their addictions and the attendant dangers, but they have a much better chance of doing so than those lower down the income scale.

We almost all rely to a greater or lesser extent on the norms of our surrounding society to give us “scripts” for our behaviour. The lifestyles and behaviours celebrated in popular culture are a key part of those scripts, so it is entirely reasonable for people to be concerned about the values promoted in TV, film or music. It’s easy to cry moral panic over these concerns — about, say, sexual content or bad language or the portrayal of married families as hotbeds of misery and abuse — but they come from a deep and honest, if inchoate, sense that good and enduring norms are under attack. The taboos that exist in a society act as philosophical signposts. They tell us what is sacred, what we ought to value and work for.

For a long time now, transgression, liberation and novelty have been valorised in the arts above all else. Épater la bourgeoisie, as the radical French poets of the late 19th century had it: scandalise the respectable people. And pushing boundaries has its place. JMW Turner is now firmly domesticated in the popular imagination, but caused great controversy in the second half of his career when he abandoned normal figurative painting. Prints by Monet and Manet adorn many a conservative living room, and yet in their day the Impressionists were widely perceived as avant garde radicals. Nevertheless, what we have not seen until relatively recently is sustained public advocacy by artists for moral and social transgression as an end in itself, and widespread approval for that stance from institutions, critics and the media.

The problem with a society that valorises transgression for its own sake is that it provides highly effective cover for people who want to do genuinely bad things, rather than just shock. This was certainly true of numerous figures from the world of music and entertainment who have been exposed as serial exploiters of women, if not outright abusers. Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones notoriously told the judge at a 1967 drugs trial that “we are not old men. We are not worried about petty morals”. To which one is tempted to reply that petty morals might have kept a lot of young women – and young men – safe from the dubious attentions of rock stars, DJs and producers in the years following the sexual revolution.

We might think of Nancy Spungen, girlfriend of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious. When the Sex Pistols used the f-word on TV in 1976, it no doubt provided a thrill of vicarious rebellion for plenty of viewers. But Vicious lived up — or rather down — to his stage name in private life, at the very least badly beating Spungen more than once, and quite possibly stabbing her to death in a drug-fuelled haze. Rock ‘n’ roll, man. So edgy.

Some people ventured to suggest that the Marilyn Manson revelations were not perhaps the most surprising news they had ever heard, and were in turn chided for having a “round up the usual suspects” approach to oddballs and weirdos.

Don’t judge a book by its cover, as the saying goes. Lots of performers have grotesque or edgy stage personas but are perfectly charming and pleasant in private life, and lots of respectable people turn out to be murderers and child abusers. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.

No-one is suggesting that we should invariably judge by appearances, or by initial impressions. But we do need to confront the reality that wrongdoers and predators will exploit our celebration of boundary-breaking, our reluctance to be seen as boring or conventional or part of a moral panic, to get away with their crimes. And often these individuals will be hiding in plain sight — think of Jimmy Savile, or Gary Glitter. Sometimes floorboards that look fine turn out to be rotten; that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tread carefully on the ones that actually look like they’re falling to bits.

Deriding people’s intuitions and instincts about dangerous people and corrosive trends, by labelling their expression as a moral panic, amounts to little more than the avoidance of serious discussion. Fundamentally, we need boundaries for ordered liberty that do not simply leave people at the mercy of their own impulses and weaknesses. We regulate gambling and alcohol sales and restrict the amount of paracetamol you can buy at one time; on the same principle, it seems quite sensible to think that we can and should take an interest in the cultural climate in which individuals form their habits and desires and manners, and their expectations of how they should interact with others.

As any parent knows, you can relax much more easily, and allow your children much more freedom, when they are playing in a carefully fenced park. It’s not moral panic to get upset if you see someone breaking down the fence.